By Mercedes Almagro
Born in 1974 in Ethiopia, Aida Muluneh’s work, both as a photographer and educator, challenges the stereotypes of African countries that are often shared in the media.
Having left Ethiopia at a young age, Muluneh spent her early years between Yemen, England, and Cyprus, before moving to Canada and later the United States. After working as a photojournalist for The Washington Post, she switched to fine arts to offer a new perspective of Ethiopia. Her work challenges cultural perceptions and the colonial gaze through strong, powerful images with many cultural and historical references.
Muluneh is also an advocate for supporting the new generation of photographers who are the witnesses of the changing dynamics in their own countries across Africa. In 2010, she founded Addis Foto Fest, the only international photo festival in East Africa, which has grown to showcase the work of 152 photographers from 61 countries in its last edition.
During your career, you have promoted the role of photography “as a tool that educates, inspires and forms a perspective in understanding realities in different parts of the world.” Can you tell us more about this role, and why you believe it is important?
As a graduate from the communication department at Howard University, I understood that media and communication plays a major role in society. In the so-called ‘developed world’, the audience often takes for granted the amount of information they access daily and at times the over-saturation of specific content has also led to impassiveness.
Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, we need to build institutions to better understand the advantages and also challenges of media and communication. Within this, I believe that photography is a more powerful tool, especially when we look at the massive and global consumption of images through social media portals. If we are to shift the perception of Africa, this is the moment for the continent to utilize these tools to disseminate the other side of our story. This is why I invest a great deal of my time in teaching in order to build the capacity of photographers in Africa to not only tell their story, but to also be able to compete with the global photography market.
The world still predominantly sees a visual representation of Africa that often misses a complex viewpoint on the diversity of stories in the different countries in the continent. What should be seen more in your opinion?
I often say that I am interested in seeing the full spectrum of a story. As in life, there are different perspectives for any given moment. I believe as image makers we should make every effort to bear in mind that our own perspective also has an influence on the story. To change how Africa is portrayed through photography, we can only do it through the action of developing new talents that offer the audience the other sides of the story. Otherwise, we will continually be portrayed through the foreign gaze.
What do you think the role of photojournalism should be in shifting this perspective?
I can’t help but think how much does the cultural background of a photographer impact the stories that are documented. With this said, editors should play a major role as it relates to giving opportunities to local photographers who have a better insight into their countries. However, this would also require governments in Africa to invest in developing institutions and understanding the importance of photojournalism and media, as it relates to global representation. It is through these two components that I believe we can shift the perspective of photojournalism in Africa.
What should change in people’s perspective regarding African photographers in your opinion?
I am not sure that the world as a whole is fully aware of the various photographers in Africa, but the wish that I have is for photographers from Africa to compete in the international photography market which is based not on their “exotic” location but by the merit of the work they produce.
Why did you decide to found Addis Foto Fest?
When I first came to Addis Ababa towards the end of 2007, I started with teaching photography. Over the years, I knew that it wasn’t just about teaching photographers, but it was just as important to also teach the audience about the full spectrum of photography from around the world. Hence, the formation of the festival was based on sharing with the Ethiopian audience images that reflected stories and various approaches through the global photography community. In addition, our main objective is to also provide platforms and networking opportunities for photographers from Africa to the global industry.
How has the festival evolved over the five editions?
In each edition, we have noticed the global interest in the festival and also the number of submissions has increased dramatically. We have also seen the increase in quality of work that is being submitted, at times it makes it difficult to make the final decision. When we started, we were exhibiting around 40 photographers and the last edition we had featured 152 photographers from 61 countries.
How has the festival been received in Ethiopia, and internationally?
The event is received very well in Ethiopia and it is always gratifying to have experienced moments in which an audience member decided to pursue photography from having seen a collection in our exhibition.
How would you describe the photography scene in Ethiopia?
Over the years of organizing the Addis Foto Fest, we have seen an increase of new talents coming into the industry. Even with a large component of the Ethiopian photography industry is engaged in commercial photography, we have seen more photographers invest their time in building personal projects.
What Ethiopian photographers would you recommend to follow?
Mulugeta Ayene, Aron Simeneh, Abinet Teshome, Mekbib Tadesse, and Martha Tadesse.
What advice would you give to young Ethiopian photographers and other photographers from African countries trying to make it in the industry?
It is important to set goals and to also understand how the photography industry works both on the local and also global scale.